I Love 2011...

Last year, when it came time to evaluate the highlights of my year, I discovered that while much personal growth had been achieved, I had slacked off somewhat in the getting out and doing stuff department. Now that I'm securely ensconced in healthy relationships not only with myself, but with a fantastic boyfriend, it was time to make the most of life again.

In 2011, I addressed all the shortcomings I felt I had in 2010: I went to the theater 15 times, saw 20 movies (many of which were independent or foreign films at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where I got a membership this year, so I didn't blog about them), tried 10 new savory recipes, only two short of my goal for trying a new one every month, and tested a whopping 35 new dessert recipes -- it's clear where my priorities are!

I sought out some new music this year, and even managed to find the time to read two books, which may not sound like a lot, but I believe that's two more than I read last year. I just don't make a lot of time for reading anymore. I traveled domestically and internationally, neither of which I did last year, and I've already planned a couple of exciting trips for next year. I feel like I've really hit my groove this year.

Furthermore, I tackled almost everything on my 2011 to-do list. I went to cooking classes, took a food-related city tour, finally made it to both the Pierogi Festival and Starved Rock State Park, and saw the Soviet wartime propaganda exhibit at the Art Institute. The only things I didn't accomplish were going to the Chinatown Dragon Boat Race in July (year after year, I just can't seem to get out of bed early enough to make their ludicrously early start time), and seeing West Side Story when it came through town. Since I'd seen it before, I wasn't willing to pay full price for tickets, but I was never able to find a deal on them. You can't win 'em all.

It was a year that was mostly full of win, however, so with no further ado, I hereby present to you my favorite things from the last year:
  • Favorite Album of 2011: By the start of this year, I was finally getting tired of listening to the same music all the time, so I decided to branch out. Though none of the things I fell in love with this year were actually released this year, they did provide the soundtrack to my 2011. First, I'm going to give an honorable mention to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Though rap never used to be my thing, I inexplicably got really into Kanye this year, and the Pandora playlist I created around him is what I listen to most of the day at work. Not only is he a fellow Chicagoan, he's undeniably talented, even if he's a douchebag in real life. Still, his masterpiece of an album was not my favorite jam of the year; that honor goes to Mumford and Sons' Sigh No More. I don't know how I missed out on this album when it was released two years ago, but a friend recommended them to me, thinking I might like them, and he was dead on. I am obsessed with this album, which doesn't have a single bad song as far as I'm concerned. There are rumors they're going to release a new album in 2012, and I am pumped!
  • Favorite Movie of 2011: With such a crowded field, it's hard to say what movie I enjoyed most this year. I saw a lot of interesting films at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and skipped a lot of the blockbusters and mainstream fare that Hollywood released. That's why my pick in this category is going to a dark-horse contender: My Dog Tulip. Not only did this film appeal to my inner dog-lover, I think it speaks to anyone who has ever loved unconditionally. I saw it in the theater, and as soon as it became available, I got it on Netflix and watched it again with Justin, then passed it along to my mom for her to watch. Everyone should see this film, truly.
  • Favorite Theatrical Experience of 2011: I'm particularly proud to have been to the theater an average of 1.25 times a month this year. Not only can I consider myself a supporter of the arts, which is important to me, but I feel like a more cultured person for it. I saw a lot of interesting productions this year, and a few clunkers, but one stood out as being far and away the best: Next To Normal. I saw it on a whim in May, when I spotted some discounted tickets on Hot Tix, and it may have been the best impulse decision I made all year. The music was deeply affecting, and the performers who delivered it were incredibly talented, even though I saw the understudy for the main role. It was the only show I saw all year that made me want to run home and download the soundtrack. My only regret is having seen it so early in the year, as little that came after was able to measure up to the high standards created by Next To Normal.
  • Favorite New Recipe of 2011, Entree: I didn't end up trying quite as many new recipes as I wanted in this category in 2011, but I ended up with a close call for my favorite nonetheless. I'm fairly evenly divided between the Boursin mac and cheese I tried back in March, and the sweet potato and sausage hash I discovered just this month, but have already made again since then, and am planning on making tomorrow to ring in the first meal of 2012. There are few food products that I love as much as Boursin cheese, but I think maybe the fact that the first thing I wanted to eat in the new year were those sweet potatoes gives that dish a slight advantage.
  • Favorite New Recipe of 2011, Dessert: Even with the vast variety of new desserts I tried this year, it was still relatively simple for me to pick a favorite. That honor goes to the macadamia-maple sticky bars that I first made with Katherine in May, and then recreated for my Cookie Bonanza. They went straight into my highly-selective hand-written cookbook almost as soon as I made them, and I honestly think they're one of the best things I've ever made. Maple sugar might be tricky to find in the Midwest, but it's totally worth the extra effort just so you can sample these cookies. I mean, they smell exactly like Garrett's popcorn, the much-beloved Chicago treat. What else do I need to say?
2011 has been very, very good to me, and I'm excited to see where the next year will take me. Justin and I got our first place together this year, and I hope to be moved in by the end of January. 2012 will bring us change, but I'm looking forward to all of the adventures that are in store for us in the year to come. Happy New Year!


A Religious Experience - Part Eight

Back in October, when Justin and I participated in Open House Chicago and got to go behind the scenes at a number of downtown buildings, I decided to hold off on blogging about the churches we saw in order to give them their proper due as part of my "Religious Experience" series. Given how busy I've been the last couple months, I never made it over to the Harold Washington Library to do further research on them, and I never got around to writing about them. Since the end of the year is going out with a bit of a whimper around here (the cold I'm coming down with is going to keep me from fitting in much else this week), and I had to go to the library today to check out some books for work anyway, I decided to pick up another copy of the ever-helpful Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage by George Lane while I was there.

I fell off the wagon a bit with my church visiting schedule this year, and only made it to a total of three in all of 2011. I haven't given up on my project, but clearly it's going to be more of an ongoing endeavor than I had originally envisioned. Keep a lookout for my write-up on the other church we visited back in October, which I'm going to hold in reserve for the undoubtedly busy days that lie ahead while we're moving in January. In the meantime, here's the story behind the Loop's quirky Christian Scientist church:

Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist
55 East Wacker Drive
Chicago, Illinois

Oddly enough, the unusual Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist figures prominently in my early memories of Chicago. Whenever we would come into the city for dentist appointments, shopping, or lunches with my dad, Mom would always take the Ohio Street exit, and eventually drive past the Christian Scientist church on our way to wherever we were going. It always caught my eye, even as a child, because it was so distinctly different than all the skyscrapers surrounding it. At about three stories tall, it's one of the shortest buildings in the dense construction of downtown. As I got older, I became amazed that the church hadn't sold their doubtlessly valuable land to build a high-rise, and was impressed that they held their ground.

Frankly, I've always found the church rather unattractive (modern architecture has never been my favorite), but in researching it, I discovered that it was designed in 1968 by Harry Weese & Associates, the same architecture firm that created the Metropolitan Correctional Center of Chicago in 1975. That building, while innovative for its use of bar-less, five-inch wide windows, is also somewhat of an eyesore in my opinion, and the fact that both buildings were designed by the same firm says a lot.

The Church, with its concrete construction and similarly nearly windowless design, was intended to insulate the sanctuary from the prevalent street noise surrounding its busy downtown location. Music and testimonials delivered by members of the congregation form the nexus of the Christian Scientist service, so it was important for them to block out as much outside noise as possible. The unusual layout of the building's interior, partially necessitated by the odd seven-sided lot on which the building is situated, is designed so that no seat is too far away from the central lectern, creating a sense of intimacy.  

I don't really know much about Christian Science, but I kind of like this quote from its founder, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure it has to do with things like medicine not being necessary.
The only natural light in the building comes from a small skylight located in the oculus of the ceiling and a ring of small, narrow windows surrounding it. This stands as a stark contrast to traditional ecclesiastic architecture from Gothic times onward, which emphasized stained glass windows and the introduction of as much sunlight as possible to emphasize the connection between the church and notions of heaven. It was interesting to see how modern architectural concepts as well as site-specific constraints combined to create a different sort of space for worship in this church. That said, I think this is actually one of the least attractive churches I've ever seen, and by far, the least visually appealing one I've visited in conjunction with my Chicago church-going project. 

I was glad to finally satisfy my curiosity about this building that I've passed probably hundreds of times in my life and always wondered about. I wouldn't exactly call the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist a hidden gem, like so many of the other churches I've seen as part of this architectural pilgrimage, but it was still unique, and I'm happy I had a chance to see it.


Merry Christmas...

It seems incredible to me that Christmas has already come and gone, given how little merriment and festivity has been present in my life this year given the demands of our impending move, but nevertheless, the holiday arrived and I traveled down to White Hall to celebrate in the customary style with all the branches and twigs of the Wyatt family tree. We gathered at Seton Hall, feasted on a truly ridiculous amount of food (a whole turkey was prepared that didn't get finished in time to eat, leaving us with an entire leftover bird), played a revamped version of our annual Bingo game, and watched the ever-growing number of children at play. Here are a few images from the day:

Mya spent the day chasing around the various dogs in attendance, and calling them all "Harlo," even though her dog, Harley, was left at home. This is her playing with Jack, my cousin Danielle's dog.

I swear, this photo of Dad and Chris isn't staged, but whatever Dad is saying, Chris' reaction is priceless.

I seriously love watching all my cousins' kids play together. They're closer in age than I was to my cousins growing up, and it warms the cockles of my heart to see them forging friendships with one another.

This year's attempt at getting all the kids into one photo was kind of a flop. Jalen and Will flat-out refused to participate, Mya was busy taking off her shoes, and Charlee cried. I think Braden (far left) had the appropriate reaction to the mayhem.

Will apparently has a soft-spot for babies, and I frequently caught him in utterly adorable moments with his cousin Charlee.

Mom and Dad called the Bingo game again this year, and we changed our prizes to $25 gift cards, plus an additional monetary prize furnished by my parents, in lieu of the generic gifts we used in the past. I feel that the gift cards were a much better solution, and I didn't end up with another Snuggie.

In fact, I made out like gangbusters this year. I finally got the Home Depot gift card I joking told Justin to request from everyone this year for Christmas, plus, I won the $100 jackpot! Of course, this led to allegations of the game being rigged, since my parents' furnished the prize, but I assure you, the prizes were completely random. Also, I'm wearing my beautiful Christmas present from Justin -- an amethyst necklace.

Mom and I, getting our purple on for the second holiday this year.
Even if it snuck up on me this year, it was so good to have a little slice of normalcy in what has otherwise been a holiday season largely lacking in its usual traditions. These moments of family solidarity are made even more precious by the knowledge that, going forward, I will have to start dividing up the holidays between Justin's family and mine. I won't get to be with my extended family every year any more, but that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make in building a life with the man I love. He'll get to experience the craziness that is the Wyatt family Christmas, and I'll get to learn about how his family celebrates this time of year. There will be change, and compromise ahead of us, but I'm looking forward to merging our lives in this way, and becoming part of each other's families in the years to come.


There's A New Sound...

Even if I haven't been able to participate in a lot of the holiday happenings around the city that are close to my heart this year, I did make sure to secure tickets to see Andrew Bird, my favorite musician, who seems to do a downtown concert every year around Christmastime (probably because he is a Chicago native himself, and he's in town for the holidays). The past two years, he did mostly instrumental concerts at the 4th Presbyterian Church structured around the Dutch concept of Gezelligheid, or familiar coziness. Instrumental music isn't really my favorite, but I made a point of going and waiting in line in freezing cold temperatures just to see Andrew Bird play live.

This year's theme was similarly experimental, as it was tied into his current sound installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, entitled "Sonic Arboretum." The piece is a collaboration with sculptor and sound engineer Ian Schneller, with whom Bird has worked for years to create a series of unique speakers, constructed out of recycled materials and designed to emulate both traditional phonograph horns and organic shapes from nature.

"Sonic Arboretum" places 75 of these speakers throughout the atrium of the museum, and throughout the day it plays a variety of original pieces that Bird composed on site at the museum. As you move through the space, you experience the sounds in different ways, as their textures change and bounce against the various surfaces. It all sounds very pretentious and artsy-fartsy, and it really kind of is, though it's interesting if you're an Andrew Bird fan.

In conjunction with the installation, Bird was scheduled to perform two "Sonic Events" at that museum, consisting of more traditional concerts utilizing the unique speaker setup.  I actually found out about the shows through my friend Chaya, who is also a fan, as the entire MCA collaboration wasn't even on my radar screen back when tickets went on sale. Dutifully, I snapped up a pair of tickets before they sold out.

Being up close means the best photo I've ever gotten of the sock monkey that accompanies Bird to all of his performances.
Justin and I met up with Darrell, who I originally introduced to Andrew Bird a couple years back, at the show, and due to Darrell's getting there earlier than us, we managed to be about one row back from the stage in the standing-room-only crowd. It was, by far, the closest I've ever been at an Andrew Bird show, and this is the fifth time I've seen him live.

Surprisingly, given the venue, and the somewhat high-minded aspirations of the installation, the "Sonic Event" turned out to be the most normal Andrew Bird concert I've seen in ages. He only played one song off the new album that he's finally releasing in 2012, "Lazy Projector," and filled the evening instead with some of his older material. He played "Plasticities" off of Armchair Apocrypha, and not one, but two songs off of The Mysterious Production of Eggs: "Tables and Chairs" and "Skin Is, My," which was an audience request. Nice as it was to hear some old favorites, for me, the highlight of the evening was, by far, when Bird performed "It's Not Easy Being Green," which he recorded for the Muppets' compilation The Green Album earlier this year. Two things I love -- the Muppets and Andrew Bird --  when combined, are pretty much the best thing ever.

Of course, Bird did play a few instrumental pieces, including some of those that he had composed at the MCA specifically for the "Sonic Arboretum" installation, but the main portion of the show were recognizable songs, and for that, I was very grateful. I've already got tickets to see Bird perform in May in support of his upcoming album, and tonight's show definitely whetted my appetite for that. I can't wait!


Don't Be A Drag, Just Be A Queen...

With the end of the year just around the corner, there was one final item to scratch off my 2011 to-do list in order to close out the year, and it just so happened to involve two of my favorite things: musicals and drag queens. Back in November, when other people were out pepper spraying each other in the face on Black Friday to get their hands on discounted Xbox 360s, I calmly sat in my hotel room and did my shopping online via Ticketmaster. As it turned out, Broadway in Chicago, the consortium that brings big-name touring shows to the Chicago theater scene, was having its own Black Friday sale, with $25 tickets to all the shows it was featuring through the end of the year. Though I had either seen most of them before, or had no desire to see the remainder, there was one that stood out as an item from my yearly to-do list -- La Cage Aux Folles. 

Given my love for men in drag, it should hardly be surprising that I have a soft spot in my heart for The Birdcage, the 1996 film starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. I'm pretty sure my mom took me to see it in theaters (drag queen movies had something of a moment in the mid-1990s, which also saw the release of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)), and I've subsequently shared the film with all of my friends since then. The Birdcage was based on the same 1973 French play as the eponymous 1983 musical by Harvey Fierstein, so seeing La Cage Aux Folles when it came to town was definitely a priority for me. The cheap tickets were merely a bonus.

You do get what you pay for, however, and in our case, that meant that we had truly atrocious seats. I like to be able to at least get a sense for the actors' facial expressions, and in this case, it simply wasn't possible. At least there was plenty of sparkle and choreography to keep us entertained.  According to the playbill, this production was supposed to take an edgier, more realistic view of the material, much like the long-running, widely-toured 1998 revival of Cabaret. I'm not sure if they were merely unsuccessful in this, or they were being too subtle for me, but this staging of La Cage seemed campy as ever to me, though camp and drag queens go hand-in-hand in my book.

I was also underwhelmed with George Hamilton's portrayal of Georges, the role played by Robin Williams in The Birdcage. First, I didn't buy him as a homosexual, and he had virtually no chemistry with Albin, the aging drag performer who is supposedly his long-time partner. Second, he often seemed unsure of himself, both in his lines, and his movement (despite his 2006 stint on Dancing with the Stars), and that detracted from the overall quality of his performance. Finally, he couldn't really sing, and I find it generally inexcusable when musicals cast a celebrity just for their name recognition value and less for their actual talent. I'd much rather watch a relative unknown with a powerhouse voice.

Finally, I didn't feel that the production had any truly memorable songs. As I sit here writing, I'm having trouble remembering any that stand out, except maybe for the tear-jerking reprise of "Look Over There," performed at the end of the show, in which Jean-Michel finally owns his family with pride, instead of trying to force them into a heteronormative vision of social acceptability. Instead of rushing home to download the soundtrack, I found myself coming away from the theater with a desire to re-watch The Birdcage, which, in my opinion, is a far more compelling adaptation of this gender-bending tale.


Santa's Little Helper...

An interesting thing started happening to me this winter, something that hasn’t happened to me before. People started asking me all kinds of questions about holiday baking, from requests for recipe suggestions, to procedural advice, to equipment recommendations. Apparently, I’ve finally acquired a reputation within my circle as the go-to source for all things baking. This is why I’ve decided to compile my best advice for how you too, loyal readers, can undertake a Cookie Bonanza of your own:
  • Plan, plan, plan: Allow me to have a do as I say, not as I do moment: do your planning in advance, and stick to it. You don't have to spend all year testing recipes like I do, but come up with a workable, well-balanced list of cookies in advance. Assess what ingredients you'll need. Check the freshness of your spices (if that ground ginger that's been hanging around your spice rack for years smells like nothing, your cookies will taste like nothing too if you go ahead and use it. Figure out what you can do in advance. All of this goes double if this is your first large scale baking endeavor. Once you have a couple years under your belt, then you can go rogue, like me, and try to cram in new stuff at the last minute.
  • Become a crazy completely rational, well-justified hoarder: There is nothing worse than being midway through a huge baking project and discovering you're about to run out of flour, sugar, eggs, butter, etc. All of these supplies go on sale at the grocery store starting around Thanksgiving, so clip your coupons and load up on all the staples, along with chocolate chips. I like to have about 8 pounds of butter in the freezer, at the ready, 3 bags of unbleached all-purpose flour, and a couple bags each of granulated, brown, and powdered sugar. An extra bottle of vanilla extract on hand never hurts either. If you like to bake, you'll use up these reinforcements sooner rather than later anyway. 
  • Beg, borrow, or steal Tupperware: You are about to produce a huge volume of cookies. You will need at least one container for each type of cookie that you bake, as you won't want to mix them until you assemble the final boxes. This keeps their aromas and textures discrete as long as possible. This year, I borrowed every single piece of my mother's larger Tupperware containers to add to my own collection, and I still had to resort to using Ziploc freezer bags. Make sure you give all of your cookies a home. 
  • Acquire some fancy gift boxes: On a related note, your cookies will need a container to make it to their intended recipients. Your friends and coworkers will be far more impressed if you package their gifts in a semi-professional way. I prefer boxes with a clear window on top, so everyone can be wowed by their contents without having to open them. I really like the treat boxes that Martha Stewart sells, and I used them in 2008 and 2009, but they are very pricey. They are available at Michael’s, so if you keep an eye out for coupons, you might be able to get them at a more reasonable rate, but this year I went with some similar cupcake boxes also sold at Michael's, and they were much more cost-effective. I also prefer square boxes, or at the very least boxes that are flat on top, as they stack easier for transportation purposes. 
  • Empty out your freezer: The secret to mass cookie production is to get as much done in advance as possible. Some people like to actually bake the cookies in advance and freeze them, but I think they taste better (and fresher) if you freeze the unbaked cookies in a single layer on a sheet pan, and bake them at the last minute, within a day or so of delivering them. I did that this year with the speculaas, orange-fig pillows, banana-walnut chocolate chunk cookies, the chocolate base of the thumbprint cookies, and the peanut butter cookies, and all of them baked up perfectly using this method. This tends to work best for hand-formed cookies, drop cookies, and whole, uncut logs of icebox cookie dough, though you could probably do it with cut-out cookies if you really needed to. This will not work with bar cookies. 
  • Clear your schedule: Let’s face it, a huge baking project is going to take time. Block out a whole weekend to just do this. If you’re really good at budgeting your time, maybe rsvp to someone else’s holiday party one night, but otherwise, stay home and lie low. 
  • Parchment paper, enough said: This is actually my favorite tip for baking, period. Use parchment paper on your pans. It’s a small additional cost, but it will more than make up for lost time in washing your cookies sheets repeatedly, and possibly getting things stuck. If you don’t already use parchment to line your baking sheets, start now – it will change your life.
  • Work clean: Unless you have an endless supply of baking implements (and not even I have that many bowls, mixing cups, and spatulas), you’re going to need to wash everything almost as soon as you need it. Don’t let the sink pile up with dishes – it will just be overwhelming in the end, when you’re exhausted from making so many treats. You’re going to need that teaspoon/liquid measuring cup/paddle attachment for the stand mixer again in thirty minutes, so why not wash up while you’re waiting on a batch of cookies to bake? Also, make sure you keep your counters clean. Between all that measuring and rolling out dough on the counter, you’re going to make a mess. Wash that thing down constantly, and sanitize it too while you’re at it. 
  • Figure out a delivery method: I like to arrange a ride to work on the day of the Cookie Bonanza. All those little cookies are deceptively heavy when amassed, and if you schlep them on a bus or train, you’ll probably end up with a ton of broken cookie shrapnel, in addition to sore arms. 
  • Label everything: The last thing you want to do is kill somebody. Seriously. Insert a piece of paper in the box of cookies that lists everything contained within, with notations for which cookies contain nuts. You don’t want to be the cause of anybody’s anaphylactic reaction. Plus, (and this may be the lawyer’s daughter in me,) I figure that people are less enabled to sue you if they do have an allergic reaction to something you fed them if you can prove that you warned them of the contents in advance. 
I'm not saying you need to be as obsessive or ambitious as I am. But should you wish to undertake a large-scale baking project of your own, I firmly believe these tips will get you pretty far in achieving your goals, whatever they may be.

    Against All Odds...

    After a full week of preparation, and two and a half straight days of baking into the wee hours of the night, the 2011 Cookie Bonanza offerings are finally complete. My plan for scaling back this year in light of my ongoing move went out the window sometime last weekend, and I ended up with eleven cookies in my line-up -- four more than I made last year and the year before. Because I left out the elaborately decorated sugar cookies that have headlined my offerings in years past, instead of using the extra time to relax or focus on packing my belongings, I ended up using the extra time to produce four additional cookies. Even without the iced sugar cookies, I feel like I've truly outdone myself this year.

    I'm particularly proud that I managed to address the problems that I diagnosed with last year's lineup, namely a lack of sandwich cookies and something caramel-nut flavored. I filled those voids with the gianduja sandwich cookies, and the macadamia nut sticky bars I tested (and loved) earlier this year. I have my usual chocolate peppermint, citrus, and spice offerings, along with a couple fruit-based cookies and several nutty options. There is truly something for everyone.

    I also employed a range of methods in preparing my selections. There are bars, drop cookies, molded cookies, pressed cookies, sandwich cookies, thumbprint cookies, hand-shaped cookies, and even biscotti. The only weakness I can identify is that I'm lacking a slice-and-bake icebox cookie this year. This could be a reaction to last year, when I felt I had too many.

    All in all, everyone received 29 cookies in their assortment, which included the following:
    Could I have benefited from some editing? Possibly, but I really was deeply engulfed in a manic state while I was baking everything. Earlier today, when it deceptively seemed like I might finish early, I very nearly attempted to add a twelfth cookie to the assortment, mostly likely some type of macaroon, given the preponderance of extra egg whites I'm facing in my fridge. Justin balked, and eventually, I came to my senses, mostly because I had already printed off the labels for the boxes listing the eleven types of cookies I had already baked, but also because I completely and utterly hate coconut. Now that I've finished barely cramming all the cookies into boxes, and am so tired I can barely hold my eyes open, I can see the wisdom in Justin's urging of moderation in this one instance. 

    I'm taking the boxes to eleven of my coworkers tomorrow, and I'm excited to make their days with the gift of homemade goodness. This will be my final Cookie Bonanza in the kitchen that started it all, and with its completion, it will be time to start boxing up my considerable collection of baking paraphernalia. Stay tuned next year, as I get acquainted with my new oven, and start the long process of vetting options for the Cookie Bonanza 2012!


    It's 'Wichcraft...

    With a year of planning mostly forgotten in my unbridled zeal to outdo myself when it comes to the Cookie Bonanza, I decided to add one final cookie to my lineup. This one, at least, was rooted in one of my perceived shortcomings regarding last years assortment -- a lack of sandwich cookies. I wanted to do a Nutella-themed sandwich cookie last year, in keeping with the cashew caramel Linzer-style cookies I made back in 2009, but I ran out of time. When I spotted these gianduja-inspired sandwich cookies in one of my cookie anthology magazines last week, I knew they were the recipe I'd been dreaming about since last year, and that their time had come.

    To save time, I picked up some blanched, skinned hazelnuts from the same suburban grocery store where I finally found pepitas for the mole biscotti, and I set about my merry way. Not unlike the last time I made Linzer-style cookies, I found the dough rather difficult to work with -- it must be the nature of this kind of treat. Not only did the dough crumble like mad (I only got six to come out with their windows intact), they also proved very susceptible to burning. I baked the first batch for less time than stated in the recipe, and when I returned to check on them, they were practically black. I had to throw them away, and I checked the next batch even earlier, finding that they were not yet done. After another minute in the oven, they too were largely burnt. My oven isn't running hot, as proven by all the other cookies I baked this weekend, so I can only fault the cookie dough for being overly sensitive; I watched the remaining batches like a hawk.

    The cookies turned out crisp, but somewhat nondescript in terms of flavor. Instead, the standout item in these cookies was the homemade gianduja filling, a spin on the eponymous Italian hazelnut chocolate confection. It took some effort to make homemade hazelnut butter and combine it with melted dark and milk chocolate, but the filling was really delicious, even more so than Nutella itself. I would eat that filling on bread, or other cookies, or just straight off a knife. It was that good.

    As a result, I'd consider making the gianduja filling again, but I'll keep looking for a workable dough recipe. With all the effort they require, Linzer-style sandwich cookies are going to remain a holiday-only cookie in my repertoire, but as soon as I find a better dough, I predict a delicious recipe mash-up in my future...

    Gianduja Sandwich Cookies
    adapted from Fine Cooking Magazine

    1 c. plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
    1 c. sugar
    5 oz. skinned hazelnuts, toasted and finely chopped
    4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    13 1/2 oz, unbleached all-purpose flour, mixed with a pinch of salt
    1 recipe Gianduja Cookie Filling, recipe follows

    1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter until fluffy, about two minutes. Add the sugar and beat until well-blended. Add the ground hazelnuts and mix well. Stop occasionally to scrape down the bowl.
    2. Add the egg yolks, 1 at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Mix in the vanilla, and add the flour in 2-3 batches, blending well, but not over-mixing. Divide the dough, shaping into two thick disks, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate until firm, at least three hours.
    3. Preheat the oven to 375, and line baking sheet with parchment. Roll out the dough on a surface dusted with powdered sugar, about 1/8-inch thick. Cut out 2 inch disks, and cut windows into half of the cookies. Reroll the scraps until all the dough has been used.
    4. Bake 10 minutes, rotating halfway through. Allow to cool completely before filling.

    Gianduja Cookie Filling

    3 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
    1 oz. milk chocolate, finely chopped
    1/4 c. heavy cream
    1/2 c. hazelnut butter, recipe follows

    Melt all of the chocolate together, either in a double boiler or the microwave. In a small saucepan, heat the cream over medium heat until just below the boiling point. Stir the chocolate into the cream with a spatula until very smooth. Stir in the hazelnut butter until well-blended. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until thick but not stiff, about 2 hours.

    Hazelnut Butter

    4 oz. skinned hazelnuts, toasted
    2 tablespoons vegetable oil

    Put the nuts in the food processor; add the oil and pulse a few times. Then process, checking the consistency every few seconds, until the texture resembles that of wet sand, 1-2 minutes.


    Minty Fresh...

    After all the hasty, last-minute additions that I wedged into my Cookie Bonanza line-up at the last minute, I've been dedicating the weekend to the items that have been firmly ensconced on my agenda since the very beginning. Every year, I try to have something peppermint-flavored, particularly something chocolate and peppermint, because the flavor pairing is a Christmas classic. In fact, at last year's cookie exchange, virtually everyone made a chocolate-peppermint flavored dessert in some sort of minty zeitgeist moment.

    Ages and ages ago, I spotted these chocolate thumbprint cookies from Baked Explorations, the second book by the duo behind the New York bakery, Baked. I think it was last Christmas, actually. The only reason I didn't make them then was because I already had a thumbprint cookie in my line-up with a lemon poppy seed twist. So I held off making them all year, but never got around to workshopping them in advance of my holiday giveaway, mostly because I kept forgetting to buy the Andes Mints called for in the recipe. It's just as well -- those things are dangerous to have around the house!

    I’ve made a few recipes from the first Baked book, which was a Valentine’s Day gift from Justin earlier this year, and once again, the boys from Baked have proven they really know their stuff -- the dough was a delight to work with. So many doughs for thumbprint cookies crack when  you go to make the indentations, but this dough was smooth and pliable. Not a single cracked cookie going into the oven! 

    To save time, I made and shaped the dough earlier this week and froze it, pulling it out this weekend just to bake and fill them. They baked up perfectly, even though they had been frozen, and the white chocolate peppermint ganache went together quickly. I was struck by the attractiveness of the finished cookies as well; they may have been the prettiest cookie in my line-up this year. 

    Aside from being exceptionally pretty, with their lovely contrast between dark chocolate cookie and creamy white filling, the cookies also tasted fantastic. Although my lemon poppy seed thumbprints were very well-received last year by the lemon aficionados in my life, and I enjoyed the double chocolate thumbprints I also made last year with their unique honey and vanilla bean ganache centers, I think these chocolate peppermint thumbprints may just be the ones I’ll return to in the future. 

    Give these a try if you’re looking for a stand-out Christmas cookie this year, whether to wow your friends and family, or just to stand in front of the fridge shoveling them directly from the container into your mouth. These are perfect either way.

    Chocolate Mint Thumbprints
    adapted from Baked Explorations

    For cookies:
    2 oz. dark chocolate, chopped
    2 oz. Andes mints, chopped
    1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
    1/2 c. cocoa powder
    3/4 teaspoon salt
    1 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
    1/3 c. sugar
    2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
    2 egg yolks
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    1 c. sanding sugar, for rolling
    For filling:
    3 oz. good-quality white chocolate, chopped
    3 tablespoons heavy cream
    1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract

    1. Melt the dark chocolate and mint chocolate together in a microwave or over a double boiler. Whisk until smooth, then set aside to cool.
    2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt. Set aside.
    3. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until creamy. Add the granulated and brown sugars and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and vanilla and beat again until combined. Scrape the chocolate into the mixer and beat just until incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and add the flour mixture all at once. Beat on low speed, scraping the side of the bowl occasionally, until the dough is smooth. Transfer it to a sheet of plastic wrap and pat it into a disk; wrap and refrigerate it until it is chilled and firm, at least 30 minutes.
    4. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Pour the coarse sugar into a shallow bowl.
    5. With clean hands, form tablespoon-size dough balls, taking care that they have no lumps or cracks. Roll each ball in the coarse sugar and place it on a prepared baking sheet. Use your thumb or a small dowel to make an indentation in the center of the cookie. Bake for 10 minutes, remove the sheet from the oven, and use your thumb or the dowel to make the indentation more visible. Return the sheets to the oven and bake for another 4 to 5 minutes. (These are the type of cookies that can overbake very quickly—pull them out at the first signs of cracking.) Set the baking sheets on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to the rack to cool completely before filling them.
    6. Place the white chocolate in a glass measuring cup with a pour spout. Put the cream in a microwave-safe bowl or cup and microwave it on high power until it boils, about 30 seconds. Pour the hot cream over the white chocolate and let stand for 30 seconds, then whisk until smooth. Stir in the peppermint extract. Fill the thumbprint cookies with the white chocolate ganache and refrigerate them until set, about 30 minutes.


    The Big, Comfy Couch...

    Though I was not there to work on it this week, big changes were afoot at our new place. Mom got our curtains hung over the patio doors, bringing us some much-needed privacy, as the twelve foot bank of windows face the street, even though we're on the third floor. Buying the curtains was a epic undertaking: I spotted them at Pier 1 Imports on the day after Thanksgiving, where they were on a three day sale. We didn't know what length we'd need, and we were in St. Louis, so we guessed and grabbed the longer ones, hoping for the best. The store didn't have enough to cover all our windows, so when I got back to Chicago, I had to have Dad drive me to two different stores to pick up the remainder while they were still on sale.

    The only photo I took that even has a hint of the curtains in it. Oops. Also, the vase on top of the entertainment center is awaiting its mate from Crate and Barrel. The original they sent me was scratched, and the replacements are now back-ordered.
    Lo and behold, when we took them to the condo, we discovered that we needed the shorter length after all. So Mom had to pick up the shorter ones from the Pier 1 in Springfield, which happened to have all six panels that we needed, and Justin had to take me to yet another store to return the surplus. What an ordeal! Even if they're wrinkly (no iron at the condo yet), and in need of some basting to connect them, I think they look good, and I'm glad to have them up.

    More noticeably, we finally got our couch! The sofa was a custom order from Crate and Barrel, and it was our housewarming gift from my parents (and my Christmas gift as well, since I went over budget when selecting it.) I love the ultra-soft wide-wale microfiber corduroy material, and I think the accent pillows (which were my color palette inspiration for the entire room) really draw the look together. I can't wait to spend evenings on the couch with Justin, watching movies on our new television. It's an image I conjure up again and again as I try to console myself that there's a light at the end of the tunnel regarding this move. Thanks Mom and Dad!

    You'll have to excuse the mess in the kitchen area. We are moving after all!
    Those ottomans are a story all of their own: I spotted them at Crate and Barrel months ago, but they were out of my budget. I waited for them to go on sale, but they were still too pricey. Justin so happened to receive a $100 gift card to the store at his company Christmas party (ah, the private sector...), so I finally ordered them using his gift card to bring the price into the realm of affordability. Evidently, however, Mom had already purchased them for me as a Christmas present, so she and Justin had to engage in an elaborate subterfuge, as I had sent him to the store to pick them up in an effort to save on shipping. He ended up having to return them on my behalf and getting a refund for both of us, and when I arrived at the condo, Mom had put bows on her ottomans for me.

    The living room is almost finished now, and is largely functional. We're still missing a couple window valances on the other wall, a recliner that's coming to us on loan from Mom's basement, a console table still in my bedroom at my parents' house, and some art on the walls. But the room is livable, and that's more than we can say about anywhere else yet. Things are finally starting to come together, and I couldn't be more thrilled!


    Feliz Navidad...

    As further proof that this time of year makes me a little irrational, I found myself baking cookies I don't even like tonight. Specifically, they were biscotti. I hate biscotti -- they're dry, they're hard, and the only way to make them palatable (or so I hear) is to dunk them in coffee, which I don't even drink. Because I find little redeeming value in them, I've never bothered making them. But when I was flipping through my cookie magazines last week in search of some last-minute inspiration, I was confronted with a recipe that practically begged me to give them a try.

    The recipe in question was for biscotti that showcased the flavors of mole, the complex chocolate-based Mexican sauce that features nearly thirty different ingredients. I've long been inherently drawn to anything that claims to capture the cinnamon and chocolate pairing found in Mexican chocolate, so these biscotti catered directly to my weakness. 

    Suddenly, the fact that I had never made biscotti before became an argument in their favor; I'd be trying something new, and expanding my culinary horizons. Never one to turn down a baking challenge, I decided to go for it; after all, even if I don't like biscotti, plenty of people do, and somebody would be bound to enjoy them.

    The most difficult part of the process proved to be sourcing the raw pepitas, or shelled pumpkin seeds, called for in the recipe. My local grocery store didn't carry them, but I ultimately found them at the European grocery store near my parents' house that features a large Hispanic food product selection. I also spotted them in the bulk bins at Whole Foods earlier this week when I was there in search of candied ginger for some lemon ginger bars.

    In terms of effort, biscotti fall somewhere between bar cookies and regular individually-baked cookies, which I appreciated during a week as jam-packed with baking as this. The dough was a little bit sticky, but with damp hands, it was easy to mold into shape. It cut beautifully, and when all was said and done, they came out as the best biscotti I've ever consumed. 

    They were light and ethereal, more crisp than hard and crunchy. I would have preferred a slightly more pronounced chocolate flavor, and in the future I might add cinnamon directly to the dough instead of just cinnamon chips, but they were still a unique and interesting combination of flavors. I think they will bring something unique and unconventional to this year's Cookie Bonanza, and they may even convince me to take a more open-minded view of biscotti in the future.

    Mole Biscotti
    adapted from Cuisine At Home

    1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
    1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
    1/2 teaspoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1 stick unsalted butter, softened
    3/4 c. sugar
    3 eggs
    1/4 c. cornmeal
    1/2 c. cinnamon chips
    1/2 c. shelled raw pepitas, divided

    Preheat the oven to 350. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
    1. Whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, cayenne, and salt in a bowl until combined; set aside.
    2. Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about five minutes.
    3. Beat in eggs, one at a time on low speed until well-mixed. Mix in cornmeal. Add half of the flour mixture; beat until well blended. Add remaining flour mixture, beating only until flour is incorporated into dough.
    4. Stir in cinnamon chips and 1/3 cup pepitas. Dough will be sticky. Transfer dough to prepared baking sheet; shape into a 3x14-inch rectangle, 3/4-inch thick.
    5. Grind or mince remaining pepitas; sprinkle on top of biscotti dough. Bake biscotti for 25 minutes; remove from oven and let cool 20 minutes. Reduce oven to 325. Transfer biscotti rectangle on parchment to a cutting board.
    6. Diagonally slice biscotti into 16-18 strips 3/4 inch wide. Stand slices upright on the baking sheet 1/2 inch apart; return biscotti to oven. Bake biscotti 25 minutes more, then turn off oven. Leave biscotti in oven 15-20 minutes longer. Remove biscotti from oven; cool completely on the baking sheet.


    I Don't Give A Flying Fig...

    Remember everything I said about scaling back my cookie aspirations this year? That was last week, and this is now. The cookie fever has struck.

    I tend to go a little loony this time of year. As much as I try in advance to carefully curate a well-balanced lineup of cookies to bake, as the date of the Cookie Bonanza approaches, I begin to experience delusions of grandeur as to how much I can accomplish. This year, this compulsive need to outdo myself has gotten worse than usual, since I decided not to decorate sugar cookies. Without them, I feel like I’ll be letting people down, and providing a sub par gift, even though the decision is completely justified and right for my current circumstances.

    Still, with this perceived gaping hole in my repertoire, I started feverishly perusing my piles of cookbooks, magazines, and recipe clippings trying to make up for what I feel to be my shortcomings this year. This, of course, was a big mistake, as I started finding all kinds of recipes that I wanted to make. Every time I go through my recipe sources, I look at recipes I’d seen before with new eyes, and find myself willing to entertain ideas that previously hadn’t appealed to me.

    One such recipe I encountered was for a stuffed ravioli-like cookie, with a cinnamon-perfumed dough and a filling of fig preserves (which I conveniently already had in the fridge) and orange zest. I’m a sucker for recipes that I can make with ingredients I already have on hand, so I decided to give them a try. I whipped them up tonight and stashed them in the freezer, unbaked, so that I can simply bake them off over the weekend in time to give them away on Monday, though I did bake a test batch to make sure they weren’t completely horrible before allowing them purchase into the hallowed Cookie Bonanza boxes.

    I think the figs, orange, and cinnamon played well together, with somewhat of a Mediterranean overtone, but I do feel that the cookies took more effort to put together than they were worth. Rolling out a perfect 8x12 rectangle of dough was practically impossible, leaving me with cracks where I had patched the dough together that would allow the filling to peek through when the cookies were assembled.  Also, the recipe only makes two dozen cookies, which is somewhat less than ideal for gifting.

    If I were to make them again, I’d probably roll out the dough and use a round cutter to shape the cookies, which would create a smoother surface for cutting than trying to piece together a perfect rectangle. Given how time consuming they were, I’m glad I made them in advance, but I’m not sure I’d be including them in the Cookie Bonanza if I had auditioned them months ago. Don’t get me wrong – they’re tasty, they’re just not quite up to snuff.

    I don't think I'm going to use the sanding sugar on the final product. It was in the magazine photo, but I think it's overkill.

    Orange-Fig Pillows
    adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

    2/3 c. unsalted butter, softened
    1/2 c. brown sugar, packed
    1/2 teaspoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
    1/4 teaspoon baking soda
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1 egg
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    2 c. all-purpose flour
    1/4 c. fig preserves
    1 teaspoon orange zest

    1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter on high speed for 30 seconds. Add brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Beat until combined, scraping sides of bowl as needed. Beat in egg and vanilla until combined. Beat in as much flour as possible with the mixer, and stir in the remaining by hand. Divide dough in half, and refrigerate 1 hour, or until easy to handle.
    2. Preheat oven to 375. In a small bowl, stir together fig preserves and orange zest; set aside.
    3. On a lightly floured surface, roll half the dough at a time into a 12x8 inch rectangle. Using a pastry wheel (or pizza cutter), trim the edges of the rectangle. Cut the dough into 24 2-inch squares. Place half of the squares 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spoon 1/2 teaspoon of filling on each square. Top with a second square of dough. Using a fork, gently crimp the edges together to seal.
    4. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until edges are golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely before eating.


    It's Christmas Time In The City...

    Cookie baking aside, Christmas has been more or less absent in my life this year. I haven't put up my usual decorations, since they're the one thing that's already packed into boxes right now, and I did almost all of my Christmas shopping online to save time. With all my yearly traditions falling by the wayside in the name of focusing on my move, I was insistent about preserving at least one of them: my annual trip to the Christkindlmarket with Lisa. We were going to get our sixth annual photo in front of the municipal Christmas tree no matter what.

    I did allow for some flexibility in my planning this year, however. Lisa's long-distance gentleman friend was in from out of town, and she wanted to turn the evening into our first ever double date. That's right -- in some fifteen odd years of friendship, Lisa and I have never been dating at the same time, such that we could go out together with our significant others. That’s a pretty ridiculous (and embarrassing on my end) statistic, so I agreed that it was time to remedy the situation post-haste.

    Justin and I met Lisa and Ben in front of the Christmas tree itself, though we had some trouble locating them amidst the throngs of visitors wishing to take advantage of the relatively temperate evening. Given the sub-arctic temps and snow we’ve encountered in previous years’ visits, tonight was probably the best weather we’ve ever experienced at the Christkindlmarket. As a result, it was also the most crowded.

    Six years and still going strong!
    The first order of business was to get our photo taken, so we found a spot on a quieter side of the tree, and Justin was duly tasked with the role of photographer. We usually have to bring a tripod and make numerous attempts at getting the image just right, so it was a relief to have someone to do it for us, especially someone who is a talented photographer in his own right. It only took about six attempts to get a decent image for 2011.

    With our duty dispatched, it was time for food. Justin and I both had bratwurst and potato soup, though Justin’s stronger central European ancestry came through and compelled him to have sauerkraut on his. (I’ve never been able to stand sauerkraut; perhaps my 25% Italian genes are responsible for that.) I also got my yearly dose of apple strudel, featuring perfectly spiced fruit wrapped in shatteringly crisp layers of flaky pastry. It’s the culinary highlight of my annual pilgrimage, and even if I didn’t have such a deeply-rooted tradition drawing me to the Christkindlmarket, the strudel alone would make a visit worthwhile.

    The only downside to the evening was that it was cut short by the market’s relatively early 8:00 closing time. Justin missed out on getting a bootful of gl├╝hwein, the traditional mulled wine served in a commemorative boot-shaped mug, due to the early cut-off time for alcoholic drinks around 7:30. It was starting to rain anyway by the time the vendors were closing up shop for the night, but it still felt like our evening ended too soon.

    Me, Justin, Ben, and Lisa.
    Even if it was brief, we had a lovely time with Lisa and her man. I look forward to more evenings like this as Justin and I continue to build our relationship, and Lisa navigates the post-divorce dating scene. I love seeing her so vital and happy these days, and I am so proud to call her my friend after so many years.


    Isn't She Lucky...

    Aside from all the usual blessings I have in my life -- an amazing boyfriend, a supportive family, a progressively more beautiful home, and a job -- fate decided to smile upon me today. Serious Eats, whose long-standing status as my favorite food blog was enhanced by my contest win back in September that netted me a copy of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams At Home, sent me an email today notifying me that I had won another free book from one of their giveaways. This time I'd be getting one slightly more useful to me: One Sweet Cookie: Celebrated Chefs Share Favorite Recipes.

    Unsurprisingly, given the New York focus of Serious Eats (though they did recently launch a Chicago section and I've been reading it voraciously), One Sweet Cookie is drawn from a collection of high-profile New York chefs, but that is no matter; a cookie is a cookie. Not unlike the ice cream book that arrived well after summer had ended, my new cookie book won't arrive until well after I've completed my annual spate of baking for the Cookie Bonanza, but at least I'll have all of next year to work through it before next Christmas.

    Thanks for building up my dessert recipe library Serious Eats! You were already my favorite blog before, but you've now earned my loyalty forever!


    Home Improvement...

    I'm pooped. For me, today was the hardest I've worked at our new place since we started fixing the place up a couple months ago. Our custom sofa is being delivered on Friday, earlier than anyone had expected, which threw a bit of a wrench into our plans. The patching and sanding in the kitchen/living/dining room was mostly done, but Justin and Mom (don't worry, she's taking things easy after her surgery last week, and she feels her recovery is going much easier this time around than last year) had to finish the hallway and the bedrooms so we could minimize the dust migrating down the hall to where the sofa is going to be. 

    Justin and I moved the futon out of the living room where we had temporarily stored it to avoid as much dust as possible, and into the second bedroom, its final destination. We also moved our kitchen island back to its original spot, as someone had moved it during the sale process (possibly to make the kitchen look larger), but the original outline of it was clearly visible on the floor, and we wanted to minimize its appearance. Not only was that thing so heavy that I pulled something in my back trying to shift it, we cracked one of its plastic support legs while moving it, so we'll have to shore it up for stability now.

    With everything in place, I set about the task of cleaning our filthy, drywall dust-covered floor. I gave it a thorough vacuuming, followed by a mopping that burned through an entire bottle of hardwood floor cleaner. I had ordered a steam mop for this purpose, as mopping is perhaps my third least favorite household chore after cleaning the toilet and doing dishes, but it didn't arrive in time, so I was forced to go the old school route.
    Check out that spotless floor!
    All that remained was for us to roll out our new rug on its freshly cleaned canvas, so Justin and I set about the task of hauling the massively heavy behemoth into place. Mom helped us measure to get it centered in front of the fireplace, and Justin rolled back and forth on it like a kid going down a hill to smooth out the bumps. Everything is in place and ready to go for the sofa delivery this week, and with that, the room will nearly be functional, which I am grateful for, even if I maimed myself in the process.

    Justin, at his house earlier this weekend, basking in the warm glow of the television box.
    Adding to the functionality of the room was the arrival of our television this week, though we've yet to move it in. I tasked this purchase entirely to Justin, to whose technical expertise I wisely deferred. I'm certain he chose well, after deliberating on the matter for a long time, and that he has selected a far better machine than I would have if I had been forced to wade through all that technical gobbledygook. Good job, babe!


    Going Dutch...

    My mother likes to say that I was born forty, and while that is probably true for the most part, I do have a healthy, if somewhat repressed, inner child. Like any child, I do love my toys; my "toys" just happen to be mostly baking and cooking tools.

    I have just about every cookie tool imaginable: icing tips, piping bags, boxes of cutters, a cookie press -- you name it, and I've probably got it. Up until last year, however, there was a tool missing from my formidable arsenal. I didn't have any cookie molds, usually used to make springerle cookies, which I've never been able to get excited about because I'm not a fan of anise. However, when I was putting together the line-up for last year's Cookie Bonanza, I encountered another type of cookie that uses molds for decorating -- speculaas.

    Speculaas are Dutch spice cookies reminiscent of gingerbread, but without the molasses that drives me away from most cookies in that category. As soon as I discovered them, I was consumed with the idea of trying them, but I didn't have any cookie molds, and I had already picked out a spice cookie for my giveaway anyway. Still, I couldn't get them out of my mind. I came across a website that sold a huge variety of striking molds reproduced from antique springerle and speculaas molds, and formulated a rather daunting wish list, knowing full well that I wouldn't be able to afford the expensive tools.

    After heavy hinting around the holiday season, my aunt, Brenda, came through for me at Christmas, and I was the proud owner of a nutcracker-embossed cookie mold. The nutcracker was a particularly evocative image for me, as I had collected the ugly-cute figurines as a child, and still have them today, though I haven't used them for seasonal decorations in years. Now that I had the mold, all I had to do was wait for Christmas to roll around, so I could try give my new toy a spin.

    I've been trying to scale back my plans for this year's Cookie Bonanza, in light of all the time and energy I'm expending on our move, so I decided that speculaas, in addition to being this year's spice cookie, would also have to function as this year's decorated cookie. I simply don't have time this year to spend three days meticulously piping sugar cookies, even though I firmly believe they're the primary "wow-factor" in each year's giveaway. Since I'd never made them before, it was a decided risk.

    I took my recipe from Martha Stewart, though not from Cookies, my usual source of inspiration. Clearly, Martha's professional food stylists have struck again, because my cookies were not nearly as attractive as hers. Their surface was cracked, and the designs were not as crisp as I had hoped. Plus, the powdered sugar that I was instructed to apply to the molds left dusty residue on the cookies that couldn't be brushed off, leaving them looking almost moldy. I was somewhat disappointed, to be sure.

    People tell me, however, that the appearance of my baked goods is secondary to their taste, and these speculaas are winners in that department. They are light and crisp, almost like a graham cracker, but with a warm, spicy flavor to them. Being Dutch, they have more cardamom and less ginger than your typical American spice cookie, which I found to be a refreshing change of pace.

    Even if they won't be the aesthetic star of the show I had hoped they would be, I'm not ashamed to give away these speculaas for my friends and colleagues to eat. If you have a cookie mold hanging on your kitchen wall for decoration (they seem to float around many people's homes as family heirlooms, especially if you are of central European descent), certainly consider giving speculaas a try. They're easier to make than springerle (no pesky drying period prior to baking), and no objectionable anise flavor. Put your toys to use as well!

    adapted from Martha Stewart

    3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
    1/2 teaspoon baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
    1 teaspoon ginger
    1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
    3/4 teaspoon cardamom
    1/4 teaspoon mace
    1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
    pinch of ground cloves
    1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
    1 c. light brown sugar, packed
    1/3 c. water
    powdered sugar, for work surface

    1. Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, mace, white pepper, and cloves in a large bowl.
    2. Cream butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in half the flour mixture. Beat in water, then remaining flour mixture. Shape into 3 disks. Pat each to a 1-inch thickness, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
    3. Dust surface and springerle mold lightly with confectioners' sugar. Roll out dough to a 1/4- to 3/8-inch thickness (deeper molds will need thicker dough). Cut a piece of dough about the size of the mold. Press mold firmly into dough, flip over, and gently roll over dough with a rolling pin. Flip over, and press onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Using a knife, trim excess dough. Gently coax dough out of mold with fingertips and onto a baking sheet. Repeat, spacing cookies 1 inch apart, and placing same-size cookies on same sheet. Freeze until firm, about 1 hour.
    4. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place 1 sheet of cookies in oven, and immediately reduce temperature to 250. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until cookies are set and just beginning to turn light gold around edges, 55 to 65 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks.